So this is a fun one. A few days ago Wizards of the Coast released the free-to-play Magic Duels on Steam. This is a Magic: The Gathering game in the same vein as the Duels of the Planeswalkers series, except, you know, free. Well, game industry free, which means it has all kinds of *cough* convenient micro-transactions. Free.
Aiming to be simpler than Wizards’ standard MtG: Online service and more convenient than playing the actual card game, I could possibly see Magic Duels being a nice way to get new blood into Magic as well as getting a short little ride on the coattails of Hearthstone. Probably.
There’s controller support, which is… interesting to play with. The game does apparently have an Xbox One release (as well as iOS), but I sure hope that it doesn’t control as badly as the PC version does with my 360 controller. The mouse controls are somewhat comfortable though. The mechanics for blocking and countering are solid and the way that the game UI handles chain resolution leaves out some of the potential confusion that happens in a lot of video game TCG adaptations.
The actual card game mechanics are, well, Magic. If you like Magic the Gathering you’re probably not going to have any problems. Probably. There are some weird things that slightly differ from the actual tabletop game rules. But if this game’s intention is to bring new people into Magic, they get most of the rules across. If you’ve never played Magic the campaign quests (which the game harasses you to do whenever you’ve yet to and try to do something else) provide a somewhat comprehensive tutorial. These campaign duels are often interrupted by “skill quests”, short tutorials that pull you out of the AI match in order to teach you about topics like specific card abilities and mechanics. While I’m sure these are pretty useful to new players, the way in which they come during another match, pulling you out of that game and into another, even for just a couple minutes, is jarring. Although these skill quests are optional, completing them gives the player gold which can be spent on card packs so there’s an incentive to still do them. A better design choice would be to have all of the skill quests before the AI battle they’re attached to, so as not to break the flow of the game.
The UI is… cluttered. If anyone ever wanted a reason a why Hearthstone and other wildly successful online card games try as hard as possible to reduce the amount of information on the board at once, I could probably point to this one. It just all gets a tad… overwhelming. First of all the graphic for the entire card is placed on the board, despite the fact that the text on the card is far too small to read without zooming in on it and therefore a large amount of the space taken up by the card is essentially useless. Even with graphics set ‘Ultra’ and resolution at 1920×1080, there were was still a lot of card elements that were entirely unreadable and would have been better off hidden until the player chooses to zoom in on or hover over the card.
The game gets pretty annoying at times. A player’s turn ends automatically when they’ve no playable cards left in the player’s hand during the second main phase, which is, again, jarring and could have easily been avoided with an ‘end phase’ button. Even if there’s nothing left for a player to do during their turn, giving them a chance to realize that before tearing control away from them is a pretty good teaching method. Mana taps automatically, which is frustrating and pretty dangerous when dealing with lands with multiple types. There is apparently a way to choose which mana is tapped when you play a particular card but that’s never explained and by the time I realized it was possible I had already just finished up my review notes and was about to exit and uninstall the game. The point is that it’s not obvious and should be obvious.
Players wont be allowed to build decks until they either finish the campaign quests or make it through around 30 annoying dialogue options asking you if you’re absolutely, positively and 500% sure that you want to continue doing so.
There’s a Two Headed Giant mode, which is my personal favorite thing to play, but my friend and I couldn’t get it to work without the game immediately disconnecting one of us when we tried to find opponents. So there’s that. Other bugs exist. I had an online game that I was forced to concede right away because the game board never actually loaded.
In conclusion, it really feels like they tried to get in on Hearthstone’s popularity through releasing a f2p MtG game with a simple UI and somewhat simplified rules. They screwed the whole thing up, though, by making the UI frustrating and hard to deal with, harassing players to complete a boring tutorial campaign and general bugginess and connection issues. It probably wont draw in as many new players as Wizards hoped through how annoying it is to play next to its more popular competitors. And it so far hasn’t been incredibly popular with any of the experienced MtG players in my circle, because of the aforementioned terribleness combined with a few subtle yet frustrating changes to old rules.
Tl;dr – It’s like Hearthstone but shitty and also Magic: The Gathering but also shitty.
However, Magic Duels is still a better MtG tutorial than those awful little fold-out inserts that Wizards puts in starter decks. So if you’re a new player and looking to learn the basics and don’t have anyone around who is more experienced to teach you, this might actually be an ok way to do that. I’m pretty sure that’s all Wizards wanted out of this release anyway.